Everyone who follows the spectacle of state government knows that those in power agitate as well as legislate.
Many senators and representatives devote time to their favorite memorials. These proposals have no force of law but can inspire hours of debate.
Public safety is a popular topic. In the last two years, legislators have drafted memorials on safety improvements for the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, herbicide and food safety, and “a safety net study” on children who were maltreated.
But my review of recent state history shows legislators have ignored one of the bigger threats to public safety. This would be lawmakers themselves.
At least every few years since 1989, a sitting legislator has been arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated or investigated for fleeing a wreck in which alcohol might have been a factor.
Many of these lawmakers tried to talk their way out of trouble with excuses or a bizarre legal defense. Some argued that they deserved a jury trial, which powerless boozers never receive for a first-offense DWI.
Memorials can’t stop the hypocrisy of legislators breaking the laws they make, then seeking preferential treatment. Passing more laws won’t solve the problem, either. Something unconventional is needed.
Each of the 112 state legislators should sign a pledge stating that he or she will immediately resign from office if convicted of driving while intoxicated.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, her Cabinet secretaries and her aides should sign, too. Taking the pledge would be the surest way to end the time-wasting charade that occurs almost every time someone in power is arrested for DWI.
Then-state Rep. Ray Vargas dragged out his DWI case for almost two years, in part because he employed an unusual defense. Vargas, D-Albuquerque, claimed he was afflicted with a rare disease that caused his organs to produce alcohol. His lawyer said the disease, candidiasis, turned Vargas into “a human brewery.”
A judge convicted Vargas. But he appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, arguing he should have received a jury trial. He lost.
Then-state Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, recycled the same argument last year. She was a champion of harsher penalties for lawbreakers until her arrest on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving.
Youngblood refused to take a breath-alcohol test, and she claimed the arresting officer was biased against “people of color.” She hired a former state Supreme Court justice to defend her.
A judge rejected Youngblood’s motion for a jury trial. He convicted her, and voters ousted her five weeks later in the general election.
Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, just lost his motion for a jury trial on charges of aggravated drunken driving and reckless driving. A judge will render the verdict in Martinez’s trial later this month.
Martinez has said he will run for reelection next year to a sixth term in the Senate, regardless of whether he is convicted.
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former Magistrate Court judge, Martinez knew he was not entitled to a jury trial under the law. He wanted one to improve his odds of winning.
One sympathetic juror can thwart a conviction. Martinez’s prospect of an acquittal diminishes in front of a judge who knows the law and will consider the incriminating video of his arrest.
Martinez might survive politically if he’s convicted. One of his old Senate colleagues, Phil Griego, twice was convicted of drunken driving in a two-year span. Griego, D-San Jose, remained in office for another 14 years.
He eventually went to prison for crimes related to a real estate deal he brokered on a state building.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, remains in office 20 years after she immediately pleaded guilty to drunken driving. She was a member of the House of Representatives when police in Santa Fe arrested her.
Then-Rep. Joe Thompson, R-Albuquerque, dropped his plan to run for the state Public Regulation Commission after pleading guilty to drunken driving. Police arrested Thompson less than 24 hours after he attended a bill-signing ceremony for harsher penalties in certain DWI cases.
Another lawmaker, then-Sen. John Grubesic, did not seek reelection after a wreck that inflamed voters.
Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, first told police an unknown character had taken his SUV and crashed it near Grubesic’s home. The senator eventually admitted he hadn’t been truthful.
He was the driver, and he had been drinking at a restaurant before the wreck. But by the time police caught up with him, they said they could only cite him for careless driving. Grubesic pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $175.
A lawyer who had worked in the state Attorney General’s Office, Grubesic knew the system. Still, many of his constituents said they would have faced drunken-driving charges under the same set of facts.
History tells us legislators will break the DWI laws they make. That’s why this state needs the pledge, though I’m not optimistic any lawmaker would sign it.
Memorials are plentiful at the statehouse. Profiles in courage are in short supply.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.